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Why technology will never replace teachers

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Twenty years ago I went into a profession that hadn’t changed a great deal since I was in school myself. OK, I didn’t wear a gown and, unlike some of the teachers who had helped me pass my O-levels, I was equipped with a PGCE (and had a passing understanding of Piaget and Vygotsky).

But much was as it had always been: rows of desks facing the blackboard (complete with chalk); bells ringing to mark the start and end of lessons; work completed in exercise books (preferably using a fountain pen) and marked in red. The teacher was the ‘sage on the stage’, and for many children he or she was the final arbiter of knowledge.

The internet has profoundly changed that relationship. Some people on social media like to ask why schools in the 21st century are essentially the same as they have always been. Why divide children by age not stage, they wonder? Why insist on rows of desks? Why have classrooms? And, they demand every now and then, why do we still need teachers?

Yet the profession I joined all those years ago has not stayed still. Although sociological trends and political initiatives have driven more of the change than technology has, the ‘craft of the classroom’ has moved on. Now we’re seeing the ‘sage on the stage’ gradually transforming into the ‘guide on the side’. How soon before the teacher leaves the room, and then the building; and how long before the building itself is replaced with something virtual?  

Teaching on the margins

At times it seems as though the core role of the teacher is being radically redrawn. For Michael Godsey, an English teacher based in California and a contributing writer to The Atlantic, the new pedagogies aid this process of change: ‘Flipped learning, blended learning, student-centred learning, project-based learning, and even self-organised learning – they all marginalise the teacher’s expertise.’

Joshua Starr, a former superintendent with the Montgomery County schools in the US state of Maryland, wonders: ‘if you can Google it, why teach it?’ The author and journalist Matt Ridley would no doubt concur: in his book The Evolution of Everything, he asks, ‘why not cut out the human almost entirely?’

Sugata Mitra, founder of The Hole in the Wall initiative, did just that when he put a laptop in a wall in India and discovered that children were keen to teach each other. In his famous 2013 TED talk, Mitra states that ‘schools are obsolete’ and should be replaced by Self-Organised Learning Environments, where information is stored in the cloud and delivered via computer to children, by children.  

Empowering the profession

For educationalists and commentators like these, teachers are wasting a student’s time in explaining, say, the causes of the Second World War when all that information is a click away. Instead, they believe, it makes more sense to teach our young people skills rather than stuff. The shift away from the centrality of the teacher to the primacy of the learner seems inexorable, and technology is speeding this up on a daily basis (only last month Facebook announced a new initiative to put students in charge of their lesson plans).

As a teacher who believes passionately in the transformative power of my profession, it would be easy to view such trends with dismay. But I think reports of the death of teaching are greatly exaggerated. Far from new technology making the profession redundant, I believe it will be empowering.  

Educator, technologist (and former teacher) James Penny is surely correct in claiming that ‘it is not technology that changes things – it is the insights that the technology unlocks about behaviour that will change everything we have so far understood about learning’.  

To give an example: if more than 60 million users are accessing a collaborative learning platform such as Google Apps for Education, that is potentially a very powerful way of connecting students and teachers across entire school systems. It is a revolution in learning. But in my experience it is the teacher who takes the lead on those connections, who directs the projects, and who brings students together to work and encourages them to stay on task.

Or to use another metaphor: the teacher is the conductor, and without him or her the class would too often produce a cacophony rather than a symphony.

‘A job for a human’

There is good evidence to show that teaching can never be replaced. Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A Osborne’s 2013 study, The Future of Employment, estimates that primary and secondary school teachers have, respectively, a 0.44 per cent and 0.78 per cent probability of being automated. Those are pretty good odds.  

Moreover, when we talk about teaching we too often focus on senior school rather than early years education and primary, but it is in those younger years that human interaction, particularly between an adult and a developing child, has such a huge impact on learning. Face-to-face contact, the smile of approval, picking the child up after a fall (both literal and metaphorical) are better done in the flesh. Such simple actions make us more fully human.  

For Dylan Wiliam, emeritus professor of educational assessment at University College London, teaching will change and secondary school teachers may see more routine aspects of their job done more efficiently by computers. However, he also says: ‘The available evidence suggests that what determines how much of a job can be automated is mostly dependent on how routine the job is.

‘Machines will within a decade be able to mark students’ work as accurately as humans, for summative purposes. But, as every teacher knows, figuring out what to say to a particular student about what they can do to move their learning forward, taking into account their previous learning experiences, their confidence as a learner, their need for closure, and countless other factors? That’s far from routine. That’s a job for a human.’

Justin Reich, executive director at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Teaching Systems Lab, believes this sociability will ensure that teaching continues to have a pivotal role in learning. ‘A crucial part of our motivation for learning is the connections we make with other people,’ he says.

In fact, Reich considers that initiatives such as online lessons and distance learning, although they serve a purpose, are limited. ‘We have evidence from over a century of distance education research that very few people are good independent learners. Most of us need teachers – as explainers, instructors, coaches, assessors and cheerleaders,’ he says.

Even Sugata Mitra, staunch supporter of technology-based solutions, believes that teachers will always have a place in the world. ‘Teachers will never be replaced just as horses will never be replaced,’ he says. ‘They are beautiful creatures and will continue to be used for all kinds of useful things such as showjumping, movies, racing and so on. It is just that they will not be used for going from point A to point B.’

The future of collaboration

Technology, when used efficiently, and when it supplements teaching rather than drives it, has a positive effect on a student’s progress. What the profession has to do is work with the technology, and adapt or shape it so that solutions are developed to meet the needs of schools rather than commercial demands.  

We must collaborate with innovative companies such as Google, Evernote, Apple and Microsoft (to name the obvious ones) so we can create new pathways to knowledge and understanding. Technology can certainly introduce students to new worlds, but it can also liberate teachers to find the time to do what they do best: inspire our young people to excel.

Dr David James is deputy head (academic) of Bryanston School